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Articles: Travel

Don Dudgeon’s friend, Nestor, tells of Filipino customs

Don Dudgeon has supplied us with another article on customs of the Filipino people.

Now that everyone has read my article and fallen in love with the idea of a Philippine holiday, perhaps a few notes on Filipino values would help you enjoy your holiday more, and especially enjoy your Filipino companion. There is a similarity to other Asian cultures but with a few special twists. Please don’t fall into the trap of assuming that just because your companion may have less money then you that he is therefore inferior. DON’T BE AN UGLY AUSTRALIAN!

NESTOR, a Filipino presently living in Norway, supplied these notes.

Filipino Values And Attitudes

Something of a false veneer lies over the people and culture of the Philippines. Things seem so familiar that many Western people are easily lulled into misguided complacency, thinking that what has been borrowed from the West has been absorbed into the inner core of Filipino society. This is a mistake. Filipino customs and beliefs are surprisingly different from Western values. The following might help you avoid misunderstandings while engaging in friendship (or a relationship) with a pinoy.

Body Talk

Filipinos are masters at cleverly using their eyes, lips and hands to convey a wide range of messages. Eyebrow talk is perhaps the most obvious. Raised eyebrows and a smile indicate a silent ‘hello’ or a ‘yes’ to your question. Fixed, hard eye contact between males is an aggressive gesture. Ladies as well as gays often purse their lips and nod their heads to indicate direction. The proper way to summon somebody is a downward wave, not with a skyward wave and call. If you want to get the attention of a handsome Filipino (for example, in a restaurant or in the street), a soft ‘psst’ will do the trick.


Filipinos place great emphasis on polite language and gentle conversation. They also desire to keep the peace and to please their Western friends. Since admitting ignorance to a question brings shame, most Filipinos will answer ‘yes’ or venture their best guess instead of admitting that they don’t know. Be forewarned that the Filipino ‘yes’ can mean ‘yes’, ‘maybe’, ‘no’, ‘OK’ or ‘I don’t know’, depending on the spirit in which it is given. Euphemism is often used to maintain a smooth interpersonal relationship. Voice tone is always soft and gentle. Direct questions should be avoided. Before asking for directions, it would be polite to ask: ‘Excuse me, but may I ask you a question?’ Surprisingly, Filipinos can also be blunt. Inquiries about your occupation, income, size of your …, family, how much you paid for your camera, etc., are used to evaluate your social standing as well as just friendly conversation. No harm is intended.


Most Filipinos have Spanish sounding first names and surnames. These Hispanic titles were adopted in 1849 after a decree issued by the Spanish governor forced all Filipinos to take a Western surname for bureaucratic reasons. And yet, when you ask somebody for their name, it’s just likely to be a nickname such as Dong, Ding, Dick, Tingles, Pinky, Toytoy or Ballsy! Filipinos love nicknames since they make people feel closer and add a degree of informality.

Timidness Or Hiya

Filipino values, often a marriage of Western values shared by other Southeast Asian people are typified by hiya, the Tagalog term for shame. Perhaps the most powerful glue of Filipino society-the desire to obey the rules of society and not rock the boat-keeps most Filipinos from showing anger or displeasure. Western people should control their emotions and keep a sense of hiya!

Amor Propio

Closely tied to the notion of shame is the oriental notion of face or ‘amor propio’, literally love of self. There are endless ways to lose face (arguing, being publicly criticised, performing degrading labour or not knowing the answer to a question). Preserving self esteem is often why Filipinos just smile at your strange question. That is better than admitting ignorance. Publicly criticising or arguing with a Filipino should be avoided since this is a direct attack on his amor propio. Many Filipino males will fight for the preservation of their pride and amor propio.


Filipinos strongly believe in sharing, camaraderie and the ability to get along with others. Fitting in is more important that standing out. Pakikisama is also the reason why Filipinos spontaneously invite strangers in for dinner, quickly reach for the check in restaurants and are willing to loan almost anything to anybody with little hope for recovery. It’s also why they never disagree with each other, and think that it is strange that Westerners travel alone. ‘Where is your companion?’ (the constant inquiry to solo travellers) really means “What on earth did you do to deserve such an awful fate?”

Utang Na Loob

Reciprocal relationships and the need to repay debts of gratitude are other important components of Filipino society. Many relationships begin with a small gift, which must be repaid later with interest. The cycle escalates for a period of years or even of generations until a highly complex web of interdependence has been created. (Both Marcos and Aquino used utang na loob to create their political dynasties). Wealthy industrialists are often connected through this cycle. Western travellers who accept Filipino generosity also accept the principle of repayment.


The Roman Catholic church concept of standing as godfather to a child during baptism is another important element in Filipino life. This ritual creates powerful bonds of obligation not only between godfather and godchild but also between the godfather and the child’s parents. Since godfathers often provide financial support, jobs and upward social mobility to their godchildren, parents will search out their wealthiest friend or relative to accept this religious obligation. Western people are sometimes invited to act as godfather, but obligations should be carefully considered.